The Singaporean Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief in Articles 14 and 15 respectively. Both rights are subject to limitations in the interest of “public order or morality”.
The government is reported to use religious and racial tensions, and also the threat of terrorism, to justify limitations on freedom of speech. Singapore’s current policies on religious and racial harmony and the limitations on freedom of speech may be affected by the communal violence that took place in 1964 as tensions ran high between Malays and ethnic Chinese prior to Singapore becoming an independent city state.
Singapore is a religious and ethnically diverse country, where the majority adhere to Buddhism, followed by Christianity and Islam. The three biggest ethnic groups are Chinese, Malay and Indian, respectively. Albeit, the Constitution states that, as the indigenous people of Singapore, the government must promote the Malays’ interests, including their religious interests. According to the last census from 2010, 99% of Malays are Muslims.
Chapter XV of the Singaporean Penal Code relates to “offences relating to religion”. The main ‘blasphemy’ law is Article 298.
Article 298 states: “Whoever, with deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”
The chapter relating to religious offenses also includes paragraphs criminalizing defiling a place of worship, disturbing a religious assembly, and trespassing on burial places and places for worship with the intent to insult the religion of others each punishable by a prison term, fine or both.
In October 2019, the Parliament approved amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (1990) to overcome challenges presented by the internet and social media, and alleged foreign interference in Singapore. It is reported that the amended act will prohibit insulting religion, wounding the religious feelings of others or inciting hostility, ill-will or hatred between local religious groups. The punishment for the offense is up to five years imprisonment, a fine, or both and will cover offenses committed overseas as well as in Singapore. The amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (1990) will revoke articles relating to religious offenses enshrined in the Penal Code.
Reports indicate that the amendments would make it easier to prosecute religious leaders, as they are in a position to influence and mobilize followers, and it is believed that they, therefore, should be held to a higher standard.
Moreover, the Undesirable Publications Act, seeking to prevent the “importation, distribution or reproduction of undesirable publications”, can be used to further limit freedom of expression in the name of religion. Article 4 states that a publication is objectionable if it depicts religion in a manner that can cause “enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility” between religious groups. Any person who makes, reproduces, imports or sells publications deemed objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act can be liable to a fine up to $5,000 (approximately $3,670 USD), a prison term up to twelve months, or both.
In 2015, 16-year-old Amos Yee was sentenced to four weeks in prison for a YouTube video called “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!”. Lee Kuan Yew was the former Prime Minister of Singapore. Yee was charged and sentenced under Article 298 for deliberately intending to wound religious feelings, as he drew “an unfavorable analogy” between the former Prime Minister and Jesus. It is reported that Yee had said that both Yew and Jesus were power-hungry and malicious, and evidently, Yee criticized Christians in general. In 2016, Yee was again sentenced to six weeks in prison for “wounding religious feelings” after posting comments, blog posts and a picture critical of Christianity and Islam. The district court reportedly stated that Yee’s actions could generate social unrest and should not be condoned.
Prior to Yee’s second trial, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, expressed great concern and said that the trial was “deeply worrying and a sign of the increased criminalization of expression” in Singapore.